Couple found guilty in death of 13-year-old with cerebral palsy left in car

Published: Sep. 3, 2023 at 5:26 AM EDT
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COLLETON COUNTY, S.C. (WCSC/Gray News) - A jury found a South Carolina mother and her boyfriend guilty in the murder of her 13-year-old daughter with cerebral palsy. The teenager died in 2019 after she was left in a car for more than five hours, WCSC reports.

Rita Pangalangan was found guilty of murder, for which she was sentenced to 37 years, and great bodily harm, for which she was sentenced to 20 years. The sentences will be served concurrrently with credit for time served, which is 39 days.

Larry King Jr. was found guilty of murder, for which he was sentenced to 32 years, and great bodily harm, for which he was sentenced to 20 years. The sentences will be served concurrrently.

Pangalangan and King were also each charged with a count of committing a crime with another person, but the jury found each not guilty of conspiracy.

Pangalangan’s 13-year-old daughter, Cristina Pangalangan, died August 5, 2019, after she spent more than five and a half hours alone in the back seat of her mother’s car, which was parked outside of her boyfriend King’s home. Cristina had cerebral palsy, and her condition meant she could not speak or walk by herself.

The jury spent more than two hours deliberating in the case. They asked two questions, each about specifics of the charges against the couple.

After hearing the guilty decision for murder, Pangalangan gasped, “Oh my God” and doubled over, racked with sobs.

The state prosecution by Solicitor Duffie Stone and Deputy Solicitor Sean Thornton spent the first days of the trial building their case. They argued that the couple deliberately left Cristina in the car “like baggage.” Investigators testified that the couple tested positive for meth on the day of the incident.

The jury was able to watch a security video from King’s house that shows the car for the entire time that Cristina sat in the back and all the activity of the couple around the car.

The defense countered by arguing that the entire situation was a tragic accident. King testified that the car was running when he put Cristina in the backseat. Pangalangan did not testify, which is her right.

One of Cristina’s daughters, Elizabeth Clyde, emotionally testified on behalf of her mother, through tears at times.

“My mom, she loved Cristina so much, and she’s a good mom. She would often say that God created her to be Cristina’s mom because she was tough and she could handle it,” Clyde said.

Clyde described her mother as devoted to Cristina. Some of Pangalangan’s other children and family members attended the trial but sat behind the prosecution to express their support for Cristina.

“We got the walker for her, even though insurance wouldn’t pay for it. They said it was cosmetic, so Mom would work extra tutoring jobs. She would clean houses. She made sure Cristina had whatever she needed. Because the insurance often dubbed something unnecessary or cosmetic, so she made sure Cristina had above and beyond what she needed,” Clyde said.

Clyde said she and Cristina were close despite their 13-year age difference. Pangalangan silently cried and held a tissue to her face during her daughter’s testimony.

“She loved her. Cristina was her whole world. And she has not been the same – every single day we’ve lived with missing Cristina,” Clyde said.

In the state’s closing, Stone leaned heavily into the timeline of the day, showing the couple around the car multiple times before Cristina was taken out. He described how murder does require “malice” in the situation and took his time explaining how he sees malice in this case.

“Malice is actions and conduct so reckless as to show a disregard to human life. So, the question you have here is ‘what did they do to show disregard for human life?’ And the answer is everything,” Stone said.

In his closing, he also went into detail about how Cristina was dependent on others completely because of her condition, but he reminded the jury she was able to express emotions and feelings.

“The defense attorney got up and said everybody in South Carolina knows if you put a child in a car in direct sunlight in August, they are going to die. Right! That is a disregard for human life,” Stone said. “In fact, it would be better and easier if you went through and tried to find a time in which they actually showed you some regard for that human’s life, but you won’t find any because it’s not there.”

The prosecution again showed crime scene photos of Cristina, describing her burns and wounds from being in the car for more than five hours on an August day.

“In the real world, talking to friends and family describing all of this, you might use the word torture. In this courtroom today, I ask you to use the word murder,” Stone said.

King’s defense team, headed by Gil Gatch, closed by saying King had no legal responsibility to Cristina, testified that the car was running and was part of a terrible situation but not a murder.

“I understand the state is outraged. This never should have happened the way it did. But Mr. King did not kill anybody,” his defense team said.

During his closing, Pangalangan’s lawyer, Dayne Phillips, brought his client up to stand face to face with the jury. As he asked them to look at the defendant, Pangalangan stood, racked with sobs, and could be heard crying.

“This is this woman’s life. This is this woman’s freedom. And I’m not saying she did everything right because God knows, she didn’t. And you can be angry at Rita out here, but you can’t do it in there,” Phillips said.

Pangalangan returned to her seat and pulled more tissues to dab her eyes, as she had multiple times throughout the trial.

During a courtroom break late into the last day of the trial, King spent time talking to his family members seated behind him. Panagalangan also spent a long moment embracing her daughter who testified on her behalf, along with other family seated behind her.

Even later, the members of Pangalangan’s family sitting behind the prosecution spent time talking to and consoling each other through the emotional day.